Review: Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk2
Full Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk2 Review: The recent release of Mk2 versions of the Traktor S4 and S2 controllers created anticipation and disappointment in equal measure, but now the dust's settled and we've had the chance to test the new S4 Mk2 and all its new features (including iOS / Traktor DJ integration), we can ask the question: Was the criticism deserved or not?
For those DJs who are not upgrading, but looking at their first serious controller, we can now answer whether the new S4 is a no-brainer recommendation, just as its older brother was. Find out in our full Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk2 review today.
The Traktor Kontrol S4 needs no introduction, as it is the landmark controller for the Traktor Pro 2 software, and the only four-channel controller that (in our opinion) is truly tightly integrated with the software. There's no denying that this model (and the sister unit, the two-channel S2) has been a massive success for Native Instruments, who claim that the S4 broke all records for sales on a DJ product.
When prices of the S4 started to come down in early summer 2013, excitement and anticipation surged through the digital DJ community that a "new" S4 was imminent, fuelling speculation as to the new features that could be expected; touchstrip controls, support for Traktor DJ, iPhone and iPad slots / integration, Remix Deck integration, wireless connectivity, USB ports, built-in hard drive, colour screens and so on. Then the big day came, and it's fair to say that the DJ community's reaction to the launch of the S4 Mk2 was less of a "wow!" and more of a "meh", with previously positive and excited DJs hurling accusations of laziness at Native Instruments.
However, it's clear that with the release of the totally overhauled Maschine Studio groove production hardware and software in addition to these new S4 and S2 variations, Native Instruments has been anything but lazy, and as we've commented on previously, the technology integrated into the Maschine units would be a solid bet for inclusion in the Traktor hardware range at some point soon. Bottom line is that we'd all forgotten "Mk2" implies "upgrade": The same controller, with some improvements. Even the packaging of the S4 Mk2 just says "S4" - they never said this was a new controller, they said it had been "revised and updated".
Any all-new Traktor controller from NI featuring anything like the features desired and speculated upon as mentioned above, or integration of the screen technology launched in the Machine hardware, will likely be an entirely new model (S5?), and possibly accompanied by the release of Traktor Pro 3.0 and Traktor DJ 2.0. So, while we'll all have to be patient to wait for a new flagship model, let's get back to what we have here: A refreshed S4 with some pretty cool new features that are certainly worthy of further exploration.
It looks nice, really nice. Little touches like the slimmer fader caps and grey filter knobs in tandem with the RGB buttons and aluminium jogwheel tops have combined to give the S4 a fresh, modern look.
The S4 Mk2 comes with a full version of Traktor Pro 2 (as before) and although it's now mapped to work out of the box with Traktor DJ, the fact that the S4 retains the identical casing assembly as its predecessor means that there's no iPad or iPhone stand, slot or docking station, leaving you to figure that one out for yourself (or wait for the inevitable Traktor-branded iOS stand as an accessory).
Previous reviews of the S4 have covered its features and performance extensively, so here we're going to concentrate on what's new, and where the successes and failures lie in this upgrade:
The new RGB buttons for the transport and cue controls are a huge improvement on the Mk1, with a smooth rubberised "MPC" feel to the surface (and the elimination of the previous problem of the buttons getting stuck in the down position, getting caught on the edge of the button aperture when pressed hard). These feel tactile, responsive and infinitely more playable. This playability is especially relevant when you take control of the loop slice mode in Traktor DJ with your iPad or iPhone and start to use these buttons to chop up tracks - they are so much better than before.
On USB power you simply cannot see the lights in bright daylight, but they're just about acceptable once hooked up to the power source (which incidentally is a different power rating to the previous S4, so if you're upgrading, your old power supply is useless). This daylight-dimness is more than made up for by the spaceship-meets-70s dancefloor appearance you get in the dark which combined with the new aluminium jogwheel tops gives a really attractive look.
So, about those shiny new aluminium jogwheel tops. Well, they are exactly that, just "tops". There is no other part of the jogwheel construction that differs from the Mk1, except a different circuit board for the mechanical scratch contact underneath (we know this because there's a video on YouTube of a guy actually pulling apart the Mk1 and Mk2 demonstrating the difference, or lack of it).
Having said that, when scratching they feel a lot nicer and the action of pushing down to engage scratch control feels and sounds a lot less clunky than before. If you are used to the previous S4 then all it takes is a slight adjustment in touch, and the familiar tight engaging control over your music is there.
This is a welcome and much-requested feature on the S4. They are TRS outputs, switchable between booth and main output, and with a volume knob for when in booth-routing mode. However the only way to control the level is to fish behind the unit where the volume knob is located which is actually not that accessible and feels quite recessed; not very useful for the constant raising and lowering of the booth monitors as you check the main output level independently.
So, at first look it seems strange that you would you use an unbalanced RCA as the master and have a balanced booth out that you have to reach over the back for… but by applying some lateral thinking to this it could actually be a great idea. The booth is adjusted a lot more often than the master in DJ-booth situations; the master tending to be more "set and forget" while levels are maintained with gain staging or occasional rises of the master, so although the 1/4" outs are labelled "booth", you could actually connect them to your main speakers, controlled via the knob at the back (and this would be a balanced output).
This would leave the booth speakers connected to the RCA outputs; with their level controlled via the more conveniently located "master" volume knob on the front panel of the controller. This may not work for everyone but makes some sense - whether Native Instruments intended this to be idea in unclear!
Control over Remix Decks
They've had a go at providing additional control over the Remix Decks, and once you wade through the manual to work out what's what, the feature is certainly a lot more accessible and controllable, but unfortunately not enough. You still need an F1 (or another controller now you can map third party ones) to truly have a blast and get the most out of the Remix Decks.
It's better for sure, but limited by the fact that this is un upgrade of an existing product; not a from-the-ground-up redesign where more comprehensive control over the Remix Decks would have maybe had more priority. I don't mind though, in most DJing situations the ability to grab and trigger eight samples from the controller without having to switch decks is plenty enough.
Flux Mode button
The popular Flux feature has not previously been available to control via the S4 (except by manually mappping to a button of your choice) so it's good to see that one of the redundant tempo fader mode buttons has been sacrificed for this, conveniently located just by each jogwheel.
The button that was previously mapped to toggle in and out of browser mode is now mapped to play the highlighted track in the preview player, and by holding down the preview button you can use the browse knob to scroll through the track and audition for energy levels and breakdowns, etc. This is a huge improvement, as the preview player is a fantastically useful feature but was fiddly and slightly confusing to work with on the Mk1.
For this we're focussing on the most exciting new capability of the S4 Mk2, control over the Traktor DJ iOS software. We used Traktor DJ on an iPad 2, running iOS 6 - at the time of writing there were still concerns over iOS 7's stability with the software so we steered clear until after the test. There's a USB to 30-pin cable supplied in the box and once the firmware on the S4 was updated (Note: this can only be done via a laptop or desktop computer) you just plug in and get cracking. I'd like to say it worked perfectly straight away, but it didn't. However it turned out to be only a minor gremlin. Full reboots of the S4 and the iPad fixed it and we were in business.
To see how the S4 performs when unleashing the impressive feature set of Traktor DJ, we started with the browser to get in the mix; by pushing down the encoder you enter browse mode and can scroll through tracks by turning. Holding shift allows you to scroll through folders, and all works well; hit "load" on either deck and in it pops. For DJs using both the iOS app and Traktor Pro 2 via computer, and you want previously saved meta data such as beatgrids and cue points to be present here, you'll need to sync your tracks via Dropbox, and vice-versa if you want any changes applied while working in the app to be applied to tracks in your Traktor Pro collection.
A further feature in browse; by pressing the browse knob down a second time, whilst a track is playing, you get a list of all tracks that the app considers would go well with the current track, by BPM and key - this is a cracking tool and is crying out to be included in the Pro Version, which doesn't give anywhere near as targeted a result when you use the sort feature there.
So tracks selected, cued and playing, we're off and running with a mix...
One word, wow. The integration is incredible, and there's only a hint of "squelchiness" when sounds are manipulated at super-slow speeds. The fader response is super quick, and transformers, chirps and flares all sound great. The only slight niggle is that when compared to scratching using Traktor Pro 2, you need a much firmer hand here, to ensure the app stays in scratch mode. For an old-timer like me this is pretty mind-blowing stuff. I was impressed enough with Reloop's Beatpad with Algoriddim's djay, which I would say is as good as this from a scratching perspective, but this is some next-level shizzle when you consider the technology at work here.
The best feature the S4 (and the S2) bring to the party here is that with sync and keylock disengaged, you can manually beatmatch using the tempo faders and jogwheels for nudge, unlocking control not allowed when using Traktor DJ alone on the device. This means the software is no-longer restricted by "sync-only" DJing, and if you are wanting to hone your manual beatmatching skills it's now possible with Traktor DJ.
The "1" and "2" buttons which in Traktor Pro assign the corresponding FX bank to the channel, work slightly differently for Traktor DJ, when button "1" is pressed the FX selection/viewer window for that channel slides into view on the left side of the waveform to show what's going on. On the controller the the dry/wet and three FX encoders above the corresponding deck, control the FX for that deck. The "1" button doesn't need to be engaged for the FX to work; they are permanently controlled by the dry/wet and value adjustments and are depicted on the X/Y pad, which can be overridden with touch control of the screen, Kaos Pad style. Great fun.
When button "2" is engaged, a less enthralling EQ window slides into view which seems to just show the currents values delegated by the controller, none of which are controllable by the screen; however, by tapping the Filter tab, you get an X/Y grid for the filter controls and you can have great fun using a combination of finger on the screen and knob rotations on the controller, to let rip with the filter.
Start to combine the value lock feature by tapping the lock logo on each FX window, and the capabilities of the FX units are pretty mindblowing, and you have to remind yourself you're DJing on a tablet here...
Push the loop encoder and your track starts looping at the indicated beat length, but when you push the move encoder, you enter the loop slice mode, and things get interesting. The loop is split into eight equal slices, assigned to the eight cue buttons (well, the four cue buttons as 1-4 and the four remix / sample trigger buttons as 5-8) so you can slice and play around to your heart's content. These eight slices are created no matter what the loop length, so if you take the loop length down really low, each cue button now controls a tiny slice of the audio and you can almost play them like a keyboard. Please NI! We want this in Traktor Pro! It's brilliant fun, works amazingly and really gets your creative juices flowing.
We fired up a three-year-old iPhone 4S and took the risk of running iOS 7 - and everything worked fantastically. The only downside is the vastly smaller screen size (especially in an iPhone 4S) meaning that features accessed through the touchscreen are more fiddly and squint-inducing. However, the X/Y pad becomes full screen when you hit the "1" button and turns the whole phone into a performance pad. So it works great, but this integration is more of an added bonus than a practical use for the S4 because it just feels odd to be using such a capable, and large, controller to DJ from a tiny phone.
For those looking for intuitive, comprehensive control of Traktor, the Kontrol S4 Mk2 is hands-down your best bet for a hassle-free, plug-and-play controller that which won't let you down. The new S4 improves an what was already a fantastic controller, and the all-important control over the Traktor DJ app is spot on.
So if you're considering this as your first Traktor controller, or perhaps stepping up to it from from an S2, then go for it. But if you have an S4 Mk1 and are considering an upgrade, the decision is tougher, because the upgraded features are borderline as to being worth the cost of the upgrade. For some, the booth output, Remix Deck control, iOS integration and much improved sample/cue buttons would make it worth the leap - but not for all, by any means.
If you plan to DJ solely from Traktor DJ on iOS, then go for the S2 Mk2 instead (or the Z1 for entry-level control), because on the S4 you have two surplus channels that you can do nothing with, as Traktor DJ is only (currently) a two-channel application. But if you want to swap between Traktor DJ and Traktor Pro's four-deck capabilities, or perhaps use DVS or have additional sound sources such as turntables and samplers, then this is the one for you.
The S4 Mk2 is a subtle but significant improvement on the Mk1. It's an evolution, not a revolution, but with the improved control over the Remix Decks and the iOS integration working like a dream, it is a worthy flagship for the platform, at least while we wait for a more ground-breaking model to appear. It's not cheap, but it's the same price as its predecessor (it's actually $100 cheaper I belive than the S4 on first release), and it's better, so what's not to like?
With an overhauled look, improved functionality and tight integration with iOS, the upgraded Traktor Kontrol S4 looks set to retain its dominance in the four-channel controller market for Traktor. Capable, reliable, portable and fun, the S4 packs a punch - but at a price.
- Traktor Kontrol S4 DJ Controller
- From: Native Instruments
- Version: Mk2
- Price: $799
- Reviewed by:
Are you an S4 Mk1 owner who has made the decision to upgrade? Or are you sticking with your Mk1? Have you just bought the S4 Mk2 as your first controller? Are you using it with Traktor Pro, Traktor DJ - or both? Tell us what you think in the comments below.